Funkmaster General Sarah R. Rodlund reveals her intense pride in Michigan, the United States, and B. Rabbit in her re-view of 8 Mile.
I spent the summer before the movie 8 Mile was released partially in Prague and partially backpacking through Europe with a friend. In was the year following the September 11th attacks. Every package was suspicious; every piece of mail was full of anthrax; news tickers had started to appear at the bottom of our television screens. George Bush was president, and the United States had entered into what was bound to be a long, hard war with Afghanistan and was also on its way to Iraq.
That summer, there were few Americans about, at least where and how we traveled, by train and bus, through a rain-soaked Europe, cash poor, with just what we could carry on our backs. We had put some thought into how to be Americans in the world, as we heard rumors that our people weren’t too popular. Some Americans, we learned, were sporting Canadian flags on their packs to avoid being targeted. For and by what, I wasn’t certain. It just seemed to be a concern. After some discussion, my friend and I decided to be just who we were: smart, funny, kind and very American girls.
People rarely acknowledged that. The individuals we met along our way tended to deny the nationality we proudly proclaimed. It was a strange experience. We were often called Australian or Canadian. Even after we made the correction, “No, we are American,” we were told it could not possibly be true. I often wondered why? Was it because we did not seem American? Was it because there was something wrong with Americans? At the time it felt too egocentric to piece through it; it still does. But I remember, in light of this denial, keeping an eye out for American things. I wondered how American culture portrayed and perceived in the absence of Americans?
That summer, 2002, Eminem released his controversial The Eminem Show album. It was a hit in Europe. I probably heard the song, “Square Dance,” eight million times. An eminently danceable, anti-Bush, anti-war, hard-ass lifestyle anthem, the song was on endless repeat in every tabak shop, bodega, and club throughout Eastern Europe and Italy. It was insidious and infectious. I remembered wondering if that song represented America’s true presence in the world. If people viewed my traveling partner and me through the lens of Eminem, if they saw us as angry and tough, if they got that the song was also about the frustration that arose from the constant threat of terror and war. I wondered if that was why people viewed us with suspicion or pretended we were something we were not.
I felt sometimes, despite my very soft, go-with-the-flow, earthy exterior and attitude that I was carrying my own tiny, inner Eminem-cum-America with me all around the world, and it was just as angry and pissed off and smart and misunderstood as the rapper often was.
That fall, I returned to the United States, to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I was working through an MFA in Creative Writing and teaching Thought and Writing classes to college freshman who had also spent the entire summer listening to The Eminem Show in the context of American culture.
In November 2002, the movie 8 Mile was released. I went to see it, and I liked it. I offered my students extra credit if they went and wrote their own reviews about it. We were all mostly from Michigan, and we were proud of a movie made in Detroit about a son of Detroit, and it didn’t matter who that son was. In a way, he was all of us to anyone not from Michigan.
Just as Eminem seemed to be America’s representative to the world, he seemed also to be Detroit’s representative to America. I think that holds true even today, as evidenced by Eminem’s very stirring, heartfelt “Imported from Detroit” Chrysler ads. For many, Detroit is filtered only through the lens of Eminem. I’ve often wondered what that means for the city and for Michigan.
Before I watched 8 Mile for its 2012 anniversary, I tried to recall my initial impressions. I remembered, at the time, latching onto the creative aspects of the movie, and that makes sense. I was teaching writing, reading literacy narratives, and making my own writing magic twenty-four-hours-a- day back then. The movie, for me, was about the triumph of creativity. It was a “pen is mightier than the sword” allegory. Confronted with a poor, violent, degrading life, the protagonist, B. Rabbit, writes his way out. I liked, particularly, how disputes were solved through shows of creativity, that violence wasn’t glorified but portrayed as dumb and unsubtle. It was an easy message, and another reason why I felt it was appropriate for my writing classes to watch.
Ten years later, I think much of this still stands, but I have more to bring to the table, and so does the world, and so does Detroit, and so does Eminem. Through fresh eyes, or tired ones, the movie is bleak, almost devoid of hope.
The film’s aesthetic, Detroit in winter in 1995 with its bare trees and abandoned buildings, lends the film a post-urban-apocalypse feel. Almost like science fiction, but also real. I grew up in Michigan in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Director Curtis Hanson captures in 8 Mile something of that landscape, a place of loss, a place of work, a place of love, a place of hope. Watching 8 Mile, I feel homesick, and I feel sad. I feel.
Curtis Hanson also directed two other movies I really love, Wonder Boys and L.A. Confidential, and both, like 8 Mile, have something to do with the power of words.
The year is 1995. Eminem’s character, B. Rabbit (aka Jimmy Smith, Jr.), is in his early twenties. He is in a bathroom of The Shelter, a basement music club below St. Andrew’s Hall, in Detroit, Michigan. He vomits. He has to change his clothes, which he keeps in a garbage bag tucked behind a dumpster outside the venue because he is homeless. He doesn’t even have a car. He gave it to his pregnant ex-girlfriend who he just broke up.
On stage at the club, B. Rabbit chokes when his turn comes up. He’s basically booed off stage. After his humiliating non-performance, he seeks refuge at his mom’s trailer park home. He walks in on her having sex with a guy he went to high school with.
As a viewer and a person familiar with Eminem the hitmaker, I know B. Rabbit is talented, a diamond in the rough, something like Thomas Hardy’s Jude, B. Rabbit is smart and creative. Like Jude, he knows it, too. And like Jude, it’s circumstance rather than talent or smarts that holds B. Rabbit back.
The winner of the rap battle that first night, Papa Doc, attended Cranston, a private school in Bloomfield Hills. B. Rabbit didn’t even graduate from high school. There’s something Hardy-esque in that, as well: those with means will win. Those without means lose, no matter how great or smart or wonderful or hopeful they are.
B. Rabbit is a person without means. He sleeps on his mom’s couch. He rides the bus through the burnt out remains of Detroit. He listens to beats on his walkman, writes lyrics out by hand on scraps of paper. He tests them on his co-workers in the lunch line at the metal-stamping plant that he works at. It’s something reminiscent of a prison yard. His boss doesn’t trust him, and why should he?
B. Rabbit is the type of guy to ride around all night in a beat up car with his buddies, shooting things with paintballs, smoking weed and hitting on girls. He engages in street justice, burning down abandoned buildings, picking fights with his rap battle enemies. He dreams big, and so do his friends, but there is something childlike about their dreams. One day, they are going to make a demo, get discovered, win a battle, get girls and cars and live it up. They’re always talking about the things they are going to do.
B Rabbit asks a friend one morning as he drops him off for work, “Do you ever wonder at what point when you gotta just say ‘fuck it’ man? Like when you gotta stop living up here and start living down here?” He isn’t unaware of the truth. It’s a painful, rage-inducing truth that any working class person with more than two brain cells to rub together has to face in order to live.
Even when B. Rabbit meets Alex, played by the late Brittany Murphy, it’s obvious things aren’t going to go well. She’s beautiful, a social climber. She’s going to get out of Detroit. She’s attracted to B. Rabbit’s light and talent and intensity. She has hot prol sex with him between the retired presses in the factory. She believes in him. B Rabbit really likes her. Later, Alex has hot prol sex with B. Rabbit’s buddy in a music studio, Wink, a questionable promoter who promises to help her get a modeling book together. Enraged when he catches them mid-coitus, B. Rabbit beats the daylights out of Wink.
Later Wink’s gang beats the daylights out of B. Rabbit. For each action, a reaction. It’s the way of the streets. Though most problems in the movie are solved through words and rap battles, the threat and reality of violence are constant. The terror of simply being alive is palpable.
Lots of things happen in this movie. None of them very happy. And there are so many issues at play here: race, talent, class, addiction, self-reliance, abuse, etc. It’s simple. It has layers. It is like Detroit that way. It’s something you can’t know unless you are from there. At the same time, there are glimpses here for outsiders to see, though I wonder if they wonder at the veracity. One of the biggest criticisms I’ve heard of this film is that it isn’t a true reflection of Eminem’s life. Who ever said it had to be? It’s a movie about B. Rabbit, a whip-smart, creative human stuck in the morass of poverty and violence that was Detroit in the mid-nineties.
B. Rabbit does win the final rap battle. Rather than letting his enemy tear him down, he does it himself, outwitting Cranston educated Papa Doc by telling the crowd in so many words: Yes, I am poor. I am white. I am trailer trash. When I first saw this movie, I saw that as a symbol of triumph, an act of radical self-acceptance and strength. Now I see it as only a small victory. In real life Eminem is one of the most influential musicians of our time. In the movie, B. Rabbit goes back to the factory to finish out his shift. He’ll do a demo, maybe but on his own terms, maybe after he gets the money to move out of his mom’s house, maybe after he fixes his car and if they aren’t all evicted first.
There aren’t any promises of a big win. B. Rabbit could more easily fail than win. It’s the same for the city of Detroit. The failure is a possibility, the win something we all hope for. In 8 Mile we don’t know what happens. Detroit’s reality is more like B. Rabbit’s, all the potential is there, and also all the obstacles.